This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 439 from Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa., will make its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with 26 Pebbles.

Dan Stewart and Isabella Fedele in Parkland High School's production of 26 Pebbles.

Dan Stewart and Isabella Fedele in Parkland High School’s production of 26 Pebbles. Photo by Frank Mitman.

STORY

In December 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School, ending the lives of 20 first-graders and six adult educators before pulling the trigger on himself. In an instant, the quiet community of Newtown, Conn., changed forever.

Like pebbles dropped in a pond, the vibrations caused by the loss of those who died that day rippled into every corner of the town, as illustrated in first-person accounts from Newtown’s residents that span the hours immediately following the shooting to six months after the event. Their words shed light into homes where parents struggled to explain the unexplainable, the post office where volunteers sorted thousands of cards, letters, and teddy bears pouring in from across the country, and the churches and synagogues where religious leaders doled out comfort — ultimately painting a portrait of resilience, compassion, and hope.

BACKGROUND

On the evening of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, playwright Eric Ulloa was bartending a holiday party, baffled by how the world could so easily move forward in the aftermath of such a horrific event. In the foreword to his script, Ulloa wrote, “By late March, everyone had moved on, yet my mind couldn’t let go of a number of questions. How do people of this town go on from here? Can they erase this mark? Does an incident like this shake your entire spiritual bedrock?”

Ulloa took to social media, but he realized he was just contributing to noise there and finding no answers to the questions that haunted him. “What was I actively doing to create change about something that hit me so hard?” he said. “It was at that moment that the idea came to me. I had a voice, I had questions, and I had the ability to go to Newtown and talk with these people and see what exactly was going on.”

Ulloa made multiple trips to the town, conducting 60 interviews. The play that resulted — which premiered at the Human Race Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, in 2017 and earned Ulloa that year’s Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Award — has been described as a cross between The Laramie Project and Our Town. “It is a story of the human condition,” Ulloa wrote. “I am honored to be the one to tell this story to all of you, and I am humbled in knowing you will continue to spread it further.”

TROUPE 439’S PRODUCTION

Director Mark Stutz is a firm believer that projects come to you when they’re supposed to. He discovered 26 Pebbles while browsing the shelves of the Drama Book Shop on a school field trip to New York. A staff member there recommended the script. “I read the back of it, and it seemed like it was worth reading,” Stutz said. “I didn’t know at that point it was going to become my life for the next year and a half.”

Once he made the decision to produce the show, Stutz discovered connections to the material everywhere. He realized he shared a mutual friend with the playwright. The aunt of one of his colleagues was a former teacher at Sandy Hook. And two cousins of Thespian senior and 26 Pebbles cast member Olivia Behr were third- and fifth-graders at the school at the time of the shooting. “The world was telling me to do this show,” Stutz said.

It was important to Stutz that his students share an immersive experience. He assigned every cast member the task of reporting back to the group about two of the 26 Sandy Hook victims: their backgrounds, hobbies, and families. “In our production, a wall of plaques comes down with the victims’ names on it,” Stutz said. “The cast is looking upstage at that point, and inevitably those actors find the victims they were closest to. It’s very emotional for them every time because, in their minds, they know those people intimately.”

Students also participated in Skype interviews with the teacher and student survivors and spoke with a grief counselor to understand post-traumatic stress. Stutz says Ulloa became “like the 14th member of the cast,” tweeting about the production and offering his support.

Cast members took seriously the responsibility of sharing Newtown’s story. “It’s very relevant to us today,” said Thespian senior Dan Stewart. “It’s not outside our world to be doing this, but the fact that we are portraying adults in this situation who have children that were affected — that’s probably the most challenging thing. Being able to comprehend or attempt to comprehend what they went through.”

Behr came to terms with the reality that she represented mothers like her cousin. “I had a bit of guilt in this process, thinking to myself, ‘Who am I to try to emulate the fear of a parent whose child was in this tragedy? How can I do this justice?’ I had a lot of self-doubt, a lot of reflection.”

Both students feel the extended time they’ve spent with the production has changed them. “I’ve never been able to perform, take a break for several months, and come back to the same show,” Stewart said. “Not that I didn’t give my all the first time, but I’ve grown as a person since then, and I feel I can bring new things to Nebraska with us. Just the other day, I was reading the script again, and I started crying. I was emotional about it before, but there is something that seemed so special to me that we could do this again.”

“With everything going on in our society, sometimes I sit at home at night and I’m scared thinking about the evil in this world,” Behr said. “These are things in the play we have to consider. Carrying that with me has been a burden at times, but overall the experience has been very rewarding because it’s helped me learn to cope with those fears.”

Stewart and Behr hope audiences leave the play with a better appreciation for the importance of conversation. “The show ends with a lot of questions and a lot of inspiration to talk about things people aren’t always comfortable talking about,” Stewart said.

“I feel this is a show you must see,” Behr said. “It’s so relevant, so impactful. It’s the epitome of how I feel theatre should function in today’s society.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. 26 Pebbles is an example of documentary theatre, in which a playwright interviews people and then uses their words as the play’s text. Why do you think Ulloa chose this style for his play? What impact does it have for you as an audience member to know that all the words you hear come from the people of Newtown rather than the playwright?
  2. A cross-section of Newtown residents is represented in 26 Pebbles. Which stories resonated most with you?
  3. In addition to asking Newtown residents about the day of the shooting and its aftermath, Ulloa asked them to describe their favorite traditions and landmarks, which he used at the beginning of the play to help audiences picture the town. Do you think it was important to include this information? Why or why not?
  4. Though not overtly political, 26 Pebbles includes conversations about mental illness and gun violence. How did hearing multiple perspectives affect your opinions about these issues?
  5. In his foreword, Ulloa wrote, “26 Pebbles is not a play about the death of 20 young children and six adults. Those are just the circumstances. 26 Pebbles is a story of hope and family and community.” Do you agree? Why do you think Ulloa chose to focus on the latter theme?

ACTIVITIES

  1. Explore another docudrama-style play (The Laramie ProjectFires in the Mirror, or The Exonerated, for example) and compare and contrast the approach taken by its author with Ulloa’s in 26 Pebbles.
  2. The students at Parkland High School researched the stories of each individual who died at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012. Choose one of them and create your own biography.
  3. Ulloa conducted first-person interviews with more than 60 Newtown residents to create his script. Choose someone in your life you’d like to interview, then use their words to write a dramatic monologue based on their story.

RESOURCES

Read
American Theatre article about the world premiere of 26 Pebbles
Eric Ulloa’s foreword to his published script
Parkland Press story about the Parkland High School production

Listen
WYSO interview with playwright Eric Ulloa

Watch
Mark Stutz’s director’s notes for 26 Pebbles
Parkland High School’s preview video
Parkland High School 26 Pebbles feature
PBS interview about the Parkland High School production
WFMZ-TV interview with Parkland High School students about the show
President Barack Obama’s statement on the Sandy Hook shooting
60 Minutes report on Newtown

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Festival Preview: <em>Xanadu</em>

    Festival Preview: Xanadu

    Alabama Thespians embrace lighthearted fun on roller skates

    May 15, 2019

    Festival Preview: Bring It On

    Festival Preview: Bring It On

    Kansas Thespians bring high school politics and high stakes cheerleading center stage

    May 29, 2019

    Festival Preview: Peter and the Starcatcher

    Festival Preview: Peter and the Starcatcher

    Maryland Thespians journey to Neverland

    May 22, 2019